Wrecked!-How to Keep Success from Killing You & the People You Love
CHPT 1| Success is good, but dangerous
“Success is dangerous.” – Pablo Picasso
Success is good. Success is “winning in life” and we all want to win. We want it so bad that we can taste it. Success is a gift. To call it a gift is not to suggest that it doesn’t take effort, or that it comes easy, but to acknowledge that everything we have “earned” emerged from things we were given: intellect, good looks, personality, athletic strength, a stable family of origin, etc. That said, success requires more than just showing up. Doesn’t it? We work hard, showing up early and staying late. We avoid “losers” like the plague and surround ourselves with other go-getters. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in. Business go-getters watch Buffet and Dalio, church go-getters watch Andy Stanley, Hip Hop go-getters look to the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye. Where doesn’t Kanye look? Kanye looks in the mirror, because, as any fan knows, Kanye doesn’t “take advice from people less successful than me.” Turns out to be great advice! Life is hard and losing sucks! Any second grader can tell you that.
So, why am I spilling all this ink to tell you something every second grader knows? Because it’s what you don’t know about success that can kill you. Success is dangerous. Success can wreck you. You probably don’t believe that. Not really. You probably don’t believe it because none of the books, podcasts and seminars we consume tell us the truth about the dark side of success. Namely, that the raw pursuit of success can leave a trail of broken relationships behind you and the possession of success can leave you feeling empty inside. But we grab for it anyway, because winning is better losing. For example…
Winning in money is better for your marriage than losing in money. Our poets have taught us to associate money with problems. Reflecting on the dark side of money, the Notorious B.I.G sang, “Mo money more problems!” But don’t look to Biggy for relational advice. As it turns out, mo’ money in a marriage tends to result in a longer marriage. A recent study on divorce and median income revealed that families making less than $35,000 were more likely to file for the big “D” than couples with incomes of at least $75,000 a year. Couples may look back with nostalgia on how happy and poor they were in the early years, telling their kids, “We didn’t have a pot to pee in,” but in America, the longer a couple stays poor, the greater their chances of calling it quits.
Winning a fist fight is better than losing one. Clinical psychologist and internet sensation Jordan Petersen’s first rule for life is “STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK.” In a chapter largely devoted to exploring the neurochemistry of lobsters (which turned out to be a fascinating read), a single loss from a fight can reduce a once cocky lobster to a skulking shell of a crustacean with little life potential. Youtube’s favorite father figure writes, “Consider serotonin, the chemical that governs posture and escape in the lobster. Low-ranking lobsters produce relatively low levels of serotonin. This is also true of low-ranking human beings (and those low levels decrease more with each defeat)”. This is why every dad or uncle should enroll their kids and nephews in a local Jiu-Jitsu school’s bully-proofing program. Seriously! Every defeat lowers their shot at succeeding in this world.
Unchecked bullying can lower a kid’s serotonin levels and reduce him or her to a skulking shell of a person. Meanwhile, every bully needs to be regulated. Parents that fail to discipline their bullies for abusing their power are raising future wife-beaters and criminals. As a kid I moved around a lot, so every 2-3 years in my life some kid would try to steal my serotonin. My first fist fight took place in 2nd grade. I was riding the bus home and a kid named Jasper sat behind me. He kept reaching over the seat to flick my ear. The first time he did I puffed my chest out to take up more space and glared at him. It was my way of saying, “Don’t touch me again!” I settled back into my seat.
He did it again! This time I craned my neck over the seat and said, “If you do that again, we’re going to fight!”
The brakes squealed and the bus stopped, extending it’s arm and opening its double-doors to allow Jasper and I to file out. Word about the fight spread, so nearly everyone else on the route got off with us. I can’t remember how long the fight lasted. I only remember going into a clench and rolling around on the ground. After exchanging top and bottom positions a few times, no one willing to yield or able to knock the other out, I thought, “This is stupid!” So I reached down, grabbed Jasper by the balls and started to squeeze and twist. Fight over! Jasper writhed in pain and grabbed his crotch in the fetal position. He was crying. I stood up straight and pushed my shoulders back. Success in your first fist fight installs the kind of confidence that you’re going to need if you want to grab the world by the balls.
So, success is good. It’s not wrong to want it, but too much winning with too little character can kill you. Success is dangerous. It can wreck you. Every book on success should come with a warning label, “WARNING: May be hazardous to your soul!” “Handle with Care!” Perhaps this is why God does not give success to everyone.
Some of what makes success so dangerous is it’s power to seduce. Success is seductive. With the slickest of existential advertising, it promises us things that it cannot ultimately provide: security, status and a justification for our sorry existence. In the 1976 movie Rocky, the night before the big fight with Apollo Creed, our hero lies beside girlfriend Adrian and opens his sweaty heart. For Rocky, the fight isn’t about winning, its about going the distance:
“I just wanna prove somethin’—I ain’t no bum…It don’t matter if I lose…Don’t matter if he opens my head…The only thing I wanna do is go the distance—that’s all. Nobody’s ever gone fifteen rounds with Creed. If I go them fifteen rounds, an’ that bell rings an’ I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know then I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
Having laid the existential ground work, the movie takes us to the fight. As one round blurs into the next, Rocky is pummeled and staggered, but somehow still standing! A fight commentator asks, “How is he still standing?” We all know the answer, having eavesdropped on the night before—standing justified his sorry existence. The final bell rings and the crowd goes wild. It’s a split decision in favor of Creed, but Rocky has won his own victory.
As a kid Rocky taught me two things: 1) Go the distance—don’t ever quit!; and 2) Push ups are good for you! But supposing Rocky got knocked out before the final round? Supposing he could not get up? What then? Well, no “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” (because that famous line comes from the sequel Rocky II). Come to think of it—no Rocky sequels at all! No Clubber Lang and no Ivan Drago, which would have seriously impoverished my teen years! But let’s push a little deeper. Supposing that Rocky was a real person, what then? Failure to go the distance would mean, at least to him, that he really was a “loser”, just another bum from block. Any one who builds their sense of significance and worth on “winning” will die a thousand deaths when they lose. Not if, but when.
Success is good, but once we have it, what then? Those who possess it discover it’s never enough! We reach the top and still feel empty inside, because it cannot deliver what only God can give. Music and business icon Louise Ciccone has made a career pushing boundaries. Her work spans decades. Many talk about her as the best-selling female recording artist in history. You’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about Madonna, but in a revealing moment in Vanity Fair (she’s certainly had plenty of those), the Material Girl revealed all:
“I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy…I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting…And that’s always pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody.”
Like Rocky, Madonna’s success is a garish attempt to justify her own sorry existence. It’s never going to be enough though, because success can only promise to make you a Somebody.
Do you see what I mean when I say that success is good, but dangerous?
Success is good, so it’s not wrong to want it, but not everyone can handle it. Perhaps this is why God grants worldly success to so few of His people, “He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.”
Still want success? Sure you do! I do too! The big question is how to keep it from wrecking us and the people we love.
Still want to win in life? I do! But take care what you wish for, because you do not yet know the lengths God will go to keep it from killing you.
Let me tell you a story about one of the most successful men in the Bible and the hidden hand…